When looking at fiction from the 80s, you often run into things that make you think “yeah, we probably wouldn’t do it that way anymore”. It’s not even that the core ideas have to be actively offensive, but just that there are much better ways to handle the presentation. Sometimes just a bit of recontextualization or the adding of a few nuanced details can make a big difference in going from stereotype back to archetype. In my current attempt to set up a big lavish campaign using the 1987 Forgotten Realms Grey Box amd the 1988 The Savage Frontier sourcebook that sticks true to the material with only expanding but not overwriting the texts, I’ve been coming across a number of things that I mentally highlighted as requiring a special touch to put them into a less dodgey looking light. Mostly it’s stuff that really just needs to be seen in its full context to take the edge of the initial dubious perception, but there is one thing that requires some real heavy work to salvage.
The primitive sub-human hordes of savages that descend on the god-fearing civilized people to murder indiscriminately and burn and plunder because it is in their nature and they lack the mental capacity to stop being evil.
Yes, orcs are fantasy monster. They are not real and don’t have any actual physical similarities with real human populations. But they are still just the same age old stereotype that has been used to demonize and villify whatever foreigners or even local minorities a people is in conflict with or just happens to make a convenient scapegoat and victim for exploitation. What do we gain by adding a monster to our fantasy worlds for which this isn’t a racist stereotype but actually the objective truth? What interesting and meaningful stories do we proeuce by having an endless supply of creatures that are just like people in every way, except that we are totally in the right to kill them by the hundreds with no questions having to be asked? Do we want to play out the things horrible racists thought should be done to other people based on their circumstances of birth?
No. There just is no way to twist and turn this to make it into something that is entertaining and fun, or at least rewarding or interesting to play. The primitive subhumans who are always to be killed on sight because their nature and limited intellect makes it impossible for them not to be evil is unsalvagable.
But in the world that is described in The Savage Frontier, the large populations of orcs and their numerous bands of raiders are a very prominent and integral component of the history, culture, and currently power relationships of the entire region. Simply removing the orcs in their entirety would be a deep cutting change to the whole setting that would already end the ambition to find out how much fun and depth can be gained from the old setting before it underwent several big retcons and dramatic style changes. The other quick and easy option is to simply make the orcs people like any other, with free will, a deep culture, and a multi-faceted society with many individual expressions. With good people and bad people, and a majority who just want to live their lives in peace like everyone else. Like we see for example in the later Elder Scrolls or WarCraft games. And this is exactly how I see the human Uthgardt barbarian tribes as something that can be handled without any cringe or allusions to old stereotypes and propaganda. But the orcs that are described in the material are very much distinguished as something else entirely. Giving them the same treatment would result in the two populations being kind of redundant, and I also feel like it wouldn’t allow the orcs to play their intended role. This has been something I have been pondering a lot for the last two weeks. Eventually I just asked the good people of the Enworld forum if they had any thoughts on this, and after a few first reflexive protests of blasphemy for even considering the question, I was given a couple of really good pointers.
First of all, we of course have to ask what is actually established about orcs at this point in the history of both the game and the setting. In the 1st edition Monstrous Manual, orcs are Lawful Evil, not Chaotic Evil. I generally think alignment for indovodual player characters is really stupid, but for monsters it can be a useful guideline for what the creator had in mind regarding their overall society and general behavior. The next thing is that the Intelligence for orcs is given as “average (low)”. This indicates a leaning towards slightly below average, but overall they generally as smart as humans, dwarves, and halflings. Already we see here that orcs are not presented as dumb brute barbarians. We also see that in the depictions of orcs from that period of D&D. Violent and evil, with armor that looks dark and shaggy, yes. But still an army that knows what it is doing. These are people who are aware of their actions, not purely controlled by animal instincts. The first thing I would do with orcs and their place in the setting is to present them as marauding armies who are feared for their organized raids, not just wild packs of roaring predators that hack down everything in their past. NPCs within the game world may still talk about them like that because of their racist prejudices, but in encounters with orcs the players should see them look and act more like lawful soldiers of an intelligent people.
Going through all the paragraphs mentioning orcs in both of the two sources I am working with, one thing that stood out is that the history of the orcs is deeply interwoven with the history of the dwarves. You can’t really study one without studying the other. As the 1st edition sources say very explicitly in numerous places, the dwarves and the orcs have been in a war for extinction for thousands of years. And the dwarves know that they have lost. In this version of the Realms, there is only a single dwarven king in all of the north, holding the last major dwarven city. And it’s not the last heroic stronghold where all dwarvenkind is rallying to turn the tide and return their people to glory. Most dwarves have accepted that it is over and that their only two remaining options are to settle as a minority in human populations or to seal the doors of their mountain holds and wait out the end of their civilization in dignity. With the big sanitization of the setting with the 2nd edition, the dwarves to take back two of their old cities and strive towards rebuilding their past glory, but the original version of the Realms had none of that. The sources mention quite frequently that the major orc settlements are inside old dwarven cities. The Citadel of Many Arrows right outside the gates of Silverymoon and Sundabar being the only one described, but with many more high up and deep below the mountains clearly implied. There even is a mention of competition over the same resources in their common homelands, but nothing more detailed is given about that.
One really good pointer someone gave me for thinking about the regular hordes of orc raiders descending into the lowlands like migratory locusts that consume the landscapes they are passing through. Coming out in large numbers from nowhere to feed and then seemingly disappearing again for several years. While that does have the old association of people with vermin, thinking about the food supply of the orc populations is a great starting point for giving them more depth. While there are large orc tribes in the High Forest and the Evermoors, the largest populations are in the Spine of the World, the Ice Mountains, and the Grey Peaks. All places with very limited food sources. And when considering fictional societies, it’s always a good start to ask “What do they eat?”
The first source of food when thinking of orcs is of course hunting for meat. Living undergound in the mountains while being snowed in means that the orcs will need a lot of food stored for the winter and will have a large demand for fresh food as soon as it is possible to come out and move around again. Both are good reasons to have huge hunting expeditions going considerable long distances to find enough prey to feed the many tens of thousands of people back home. This could be the main driving factor for large numbers of orc warriors descending from the mountains all at once on a regular basis. Not to wantonly destroy farms and murder everyone they come across, or to satisfy their endless craving for gold, but to collect and return home with food. A great alternative to hunting deer is of course to just steal some cows. Lots of meat that stays fresh until you reach home and that even has the dignity of walking on its own legs. And the Surbrin and Dessarin valley (and to a lesser extent the lower Delimbyr valley) are described as being big cattle raising areas. While agriculture isn’t that big in these northern lands, the sparsely populated prairies are pefect for raising cattle. And as such, perfect for rustling cattle as well. And of along the way you come across poorly defended barns full of sacks with grain and flour, that’s an opportunity no orc could pass on.
Thinking of the orcs in their mountains had me think of the Vikings from Norway and Iceland. An important factor in their raids was that their own agriculture was pretty awful and as a result their economy not much to speak of either. With little surplus of their own to trade, buying nice things from other peoples was not much of an option. If you want to bring some nice gold necklace or expensive fabrics for making clothes for the lady back home buy you have no money, just steal that shit from others! Or steal their money and use that to buy expensive stuff from merchants. I think that if we think of constantly raiding bands of orcs more like viking raiders who are in it for the plunder instead of a rabbid horde out for blood and carnage, we have a much better basis to consider orcs as NPCs instead of hungry monsters. Of course, this makes little difference for the human farmers or dwarven soldiers who suffer an attack from a roving orc army. As mentioned above, there is nothing wrong with the image of mindless murder machines existing among the NPC population. It’s just that as a GM who plays orcs when players interact with them, there should be more complexity given to them than that.
While players are unlikely to ever see them, the old conquered dwarven fortresses and vast cave systems in the mountains make for a good explanation for why we always only get to see lawful evil warriors. You can’t just have a whole society only of warriors. But the orc raiders we get to see are not at all representative of orc society, no more than a viking longship tells us about life in a Norwegian village. All the things that are said about orcs in the source texts might be true. But those are statements about orc armies and raiding parties. They are not statements about orc society.
Can a whole species and society truly be evil and perists over many generations? That seems hard to believe. Can all marauding bandits be evil? Duh, of course they can. That kind of comes with the job description.
Finally, there is an idea that apparently originates from the writers of a 5th edition monster books. While individual orcs might be intelligent beings with the capacity to consider their actions and exercise free will, orc society as a whole is not free to choose its own way. More so than maybe any other people other than the drow, the orcs are a society that is directly under the hand of a single despotic god. Gruumsh is not just some distant creator of the orcs in times immemorial, he is the ruler and master of the whole orc species. Not in the way of direct supernatural control of the mind of every individual orc, but all orc tribes are part of a single universal hierarchy with Gruumsh at the top. Through his shamans, Gruumsh gives direct orders to all the orc kings and chiefs who in the end are obliged to execute his will and his plans for the people. And when the ultimate dictator at the top is a god, there is little room for resistance and no hope of revolution. In this context we can very well imagine that orcs are physically capable of chosing different ways to live, but it’s the hand of their god that keeps them on their paths and that crushes even the thought that existence for the orcs could be different. This doesn’t make the actions of any orc less evil, but it provides a basis for why we never see orc tribes choosing a different life. Orcs who consider different choices probably appear regularly, but in orc society under the rule of Gruumsh, these can be crushed effectively without their thoughts reaching other ears.
So, in closing, I do believe that the situation is not hopeless. The amount of additional work is quite significant, but I believe that it is indeed possible to have orcs in the Savage Frontier, in the role they were intended, in ways that are not wildly implausible and offensive to sensibilites, only by adding to the established material and without removing or rewriting any of it. Would I go through all this trouble to make an orc horde work in a new setting I create? Absolutely not. I really don’t think it’s worth it to have a great race of evil as a regular enemy if going with actual humans can create much more interesting and nuanced situations and conflicts. But my fascination with this old setting and my dream to really make it shine with all the great potential that was thrown out so early in its existence to be replaced with cozy mush makes it seem worthwhile for me to invest this sweat and blood into this effort.